Robo-music gives musicians the jitters
Realtime has never played Broadway, but touring shows and 'Les Miz' in London use it.
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"I don't think that [a virtual orchestra] will ever sound exactly the same or as good as a traditional acoustic orchestra," assuming it's performing the traditional European repertoire, says Jeff Lazarus, chief executive officer of Realtime Music Solutions in New York City. His company supplies the technology, called Sinfonia, which underlies OrchEXTRA and several other virtual orchestra products.Skip to next paragraph
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A Sinfonia performance of a musical score begins by drawing on Realtime's huge database of sounds of instruments playing notes at various dynamic levels and articulations. In a "painstaking process," human musicians help sculpt the individual lines played by each instrument. For a professional production, the company will meet with the composer or music director ("more accent on beat 3, more legato here") to further refine the sound, as well as seek input from the human musicians that will be playing with the Sinfonia. Even the acoustics of a particular theater can be taken into account.
You don't just "push 'play,' " Realtime's Mr. Lazarus says. A trained musician must control the Sinfonia. "They're reading the score, and they're absolutely a musician playing in the band" who must rehearse their part just as other musicians do.
Realtime came under fire from union musicians on Broadway in 2003 when producers threatened to use virtual orchestra machines to replace musicians during a four-day strike. The technology has not been used there since, even though other high-tech aids – music synthesizers, computerized lighting – are employed, as Realtime points out.
"We don't want to see the virtual orchestra brought in ... not just [in] theater but opera or ballet, church services, or anything [else] because we believe it's a machine and not a musical instrument," says Vicky Smolik, a musician based in St. Louis who is president of the national Theater Musicians Association.
Concern about virtual orchestras, she says, is "a big thing" with her union members, "from New York to Los Angeles ... and everywhere in between." Virtual technology could "replace the whole art form, eventually, if it decided to take over," she says. "And nobody wants to see that because that's why it's called 'live theater.' "
Mr. Lazarus says he's come to loathe the term "virtual orchestra" because it has been "poisoned." "The union has done a very good job of demonizing 'virtual orchestra' as a concept and making it seem like it's the devil ... public enemy No. 1 for musicians."
Realtime doesn't advocate replacing orchestras with Sinfonia, he says. What it can do is allow a small orchestra to sound like a bigger one. The technology works best when live musicians take the lead parts and the computer fills in the background, he says. "You're going to want to get a good [human] fiddle player" to play the key opening solo for a production of "Fiddler on the Roof," he says. But Sinfonia might fill out the background string section for a lusher sound.
Charges that virtual orchestras are taking jobs from human musicians are "totally overblown," Lazarus says. Producers will hire as many musicians as they can afford or can fit into the pit (which they've shrunk to put in more seats) because live musicians offer the best-quality sound, he says. "Ultimately, people are making choices to use Sinfonia for artistic reasons," not financial ones, he says. "They recognize that it's better than the other compromises they're exploring.... Better than just cutting down to a 10-piece orchestra."